Allegan County won’t oppose Gun Lake Tribe’s land request

By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

While it continues talks with the Gun Lake Tribe, Allegan County has not yet voiced objection to the tribe’s effort to place more land under its sovereign rule.

The tribe applied to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs earlier this year to have the 130 acres of the Nowak property it owns at the southwest corner of US-131 and 129th Street in Hopkins Township be placed in trust for the tribe, similar to how it acquired the adjacent land on which the Gun Lake Casino now sits. The BIA sought local input on the matter.

Hopkins Township officials last month implored the county to oppose the tribe’s application. The township stands to lose tax revenue since land placed in trust is removed from township control.

Instead, county commissioners voted 6-1 at their meeting Thursday, June 14, to approve a response to the BIA that, while also providing the requested tax information and other details, merely identified that the county was working to iron out the tax revenue concerns with the tribal council.

It reads, “...Allegan County has identified various areas of concern relative to the addition of non-gaming properties in trust...” including “tax revenue loss, a variety of current and future service and land-use issues...”

Tribal chair Scott Sprague said the county’s response was appropriate given the fact that it, too, is serving its constituents.

As far as a framework to develop payments to county municipalities to make up for lost tax revenue, Sprague said he couldn’t obligate the tribal council to that at this time.

“The door to discussions is always going to be open, though,” he said.

Senior director of government affairs John Shagonaby said “I think our good neighbor policy warrants talking on anything. Some of the issues raised are just consultation from government to government, as far as right of ways, easements. So, it’s more of a government consultation process we need to set up.”

Commissioner Max Thiele cast the lone dissent, saying he felt the county should oppose the application until a deal was struck with the tribe to handle the loss of tax revenue now and in the future.

“From a negotiating standpoint... it doesn’t make any sense to allow these non-gaming lands to be taken into trust and deteriorate our position at the table,” Thiele said. “I suggest... we oppose it until we reach an agreement that satisfies our concerns. I don’t see anything wrong with that; I see it as protecting ourselves.”

The statement the county sent was a recommendation from county administrator Rob Sarro, who said, “I want to once again speak to the tribe’s openness and willingness to collaborate.”

Hopkins Township board members voted June 11 to formally oppose the application. The parcel is currently used for agriculture and is zoned for commercial or industrial use.

The township resolution challenges both the tribe’s assertion that the property is contiguous with its historical reservation as well as that the acquisition is not being pursued for business purposes.

It also states removing the property from the tax rolls leaves “an immediate and future increasing financial burden” to both the county and township and said it was not clear how county drains, easements, roads and other infrastructure would be reconciled once transferred to tribal control.

Shagonaby, in a presentation to answer those concerns, said the tribe has and will continue to honor those types of infrastructure needs.

Despite those assurances, Hopkins Township board member Bob Modreske told commissioners before their vote June 14 to consider what the tribe could do with the Nowak property.

“Zoning is a big issue,” Modreske said. “When I think to myself, what could be the impact... I could see them putting in a like a Cedar Point (amusement park). Well, you know how much that’s going to affect roads, and more police, more cost, more everything. You know, environmental impact is going to be huge. Services are going to be huge. And I’m just trying to wrap my head around the impacts this is going to cause.”

Hopkins supervisor Mark Evans warned commissioners, “I don’t see legal counsel here for the county. I do see legal counsel for tribe. You’re doing the county a disservice in not getting (a deal) done prior to this meeting.

“We’re dealing with legal things here all the way around. And we don’t have answers.”

Commissioner Tom Jessup later pointed out the Hopkins resolution contained a lot of presupposition and, ultimately, the tribe met the criteria to make the application.

“They have a right to do this,” Jessup said.

Commissioners actually removed language in Sarro’s proposed draft that pointed out the county may appeal the BIA decision. Deleting the sentence was proposed by Mark DeYoung, who sits on the local revenue sharing board that disperses twice annual payments from casino revenue to local government as part of the tribe’s compact with the state. Deleting the sentence was opposed by board chair Dean Kapenga and Thiele.

Sarro pointed out the county can appeal whether or not it states that intent. The process going forward is this: the BIA will make its decision and then approach local government for possible appeals. The application then goes to a regional review followed by another opportunity to appeal. If it passes all of those steps, the federal government would be poised to place the land in trust.

While Hopkins’ Modreske repeated a claim that the tribe has stated it seeks to establish sovereignty over 99 acres worth of nearby land, tribal officials pointedly denied they had made any such claim.

“We are a sovereign nation; we have rules and laws” Sprague said. “We do from time to time buy land (related to the original reservation). We are good stewards of our land.”

“We cannot find any official position by our tribe to attribute this ‘goal’ (of acquiring 99 acres). So, we are happy to correct and dispel this goal.

“We will continue to buy land as we see a need. We enjoy our relationship with our local governments such as the county. It is a good, solid one. We see nothing that has changed that.

“Cooperation and relationships are how progress is made.”

Commissioner Gale Dugan, who made the original motion to approve the statement to the BIA, said it had been an important step to take as the county.

“This is changing how Allegan County has done things with past practices to one in which we can move forward,” Dugan said. “We had always taken a position of neutrality and not responded to requests from the BIA.

“But we should be doing this as good stewards, so the BIA has complete and total information. This is a good step as setting policy into the future.”

County commissioners also voted 6-1 to pass a resolution authorizing sending the response to the BIA and also appointing three people to continue discussions with the tribe, “...with the goal of addressing any outstanding concerns (inclusive of proposed agreements if applicable) relative to the Nowak Parcel and/or future properties potentially to be placed in trust.”

They include Kapenga, Dugan—as the commissioner representing District 6, which includes Hopkins Township—and Sarro. Any decisions or agreements would still require approval by the full board.

Thiele dissented, having tried to amend the resolution to address past properties acquired by the tribe; that amendment failed.

Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

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